LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 54, No 1 - Spring 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Aušra Paulauskienė, Lost and Found: The Discovery of Lithuania in American Fiction. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007, 173 pages.
Aušra Paulauskienė introduces her study by recounting a “grotesque” fictional misrepresentation of contemporary Lithuanian culture in Jonathan Franzen’s recent bestselling novel The Corrections. She does so in order to make a point: twentieth-century American literature has “lost” its knowledge of Lithuania and Lithuanians, and such knowledge “needs to be regained.”
Accordingly, the primary goal of Lost and Found is to restore excluded works, writers and ideologies to the historical record. Assuming that readers are already familiar with Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel The Jungle, the book begins by exploring Lithuanian elements in the life and art of Jewish-American writer Abraham Cahan. It then draws attention in interesting ways to lesser-known treatments of Jewish-Lithuanian relations by Ezra Brudno and Goldie Stone. In the book’s fourth chapter, Paulauskienė shifts gears, undertaking a fascinating analysis of Margaret Seebach’s 1909 novel That Man Donaleitis (sic), a largely forgotten work that describes Lithuanian immigrants in the coal-mining region of western Pennsylvania. The final chapter of Lost and Found discusses mid-twentieth century proletarian novels by Lithuanian leftist writers Algirdas Margeris and Rojus Mizara, who emigrated to the United States, wrote in their native language, and produced “the richest. . . literary representations of Lithuanians in America through the eyes of Lithuanians.”
As these expansive contents suggest, Paulauskienė’s study assumes a complex and inclusive view of Lithuanian-American literary production, a view that explicitly reassesses prevailing notions of what constitutes “Lithuanianness” in literary, cultural and political terms. The author’s handling of Abraham Cahan is a good example of her priorities. Throughout his life, Cahan seems to have avoided cultural references to his specifically “Litvak” (Lithuanian Jewish) identity, instead allowing himself to be identified as a “Russian Jew.” His fiction, however, makes important references to Lithuanian cultural and historical material. The previous inattention to these elements of Cahan’s work is a function of a general amnesia in American academic and popular culture concerning the idea of Lithuania as a culturally distinct nation-state. While there have been recent “signs of adjustment”* in literary scholarship that impart greater significance to the fact that the sociopolitical climate of tsarist Lithuania nurtured Cahan’s art, his Lithuanian identity “has been gradually erased from American literary criticism.”
Paulaskienė uses Ezra Brudno’s novel The Fugitive (1904) and Goldie Stone’s autobiography, My Caravan of Years (1945) to offer both parallels and contrasts to Cahan’s oeuvre. As in Cahan’s fiction, the Jewish and Lithuanian communities in Brudno’s novel live in close geographic proximity, but language and cultural barriers preclude nearly all interaction between them. An awareness of ethnic Lithuanian elements is necessary for a full appreciation of Brudno’s work, but The Fugitive affirms the separateness of the two cultures, underscoring the notion that “Lithuanian Jewishness had little to do with Lithuanianness” and that “the same land fed the roots of two very different groups of people.” Goldie Stone’s My Caravan of Years, however, describes sympathetic interaction and cooperation between Lithuanians and Jews in western Lithuania during approximately the same period. In Stone’s work, a strong cultural bond is forged by both groups’ awareness of their common history as persecuted peoples, what Paulauskienė terms “a shared consciousness of physical or spiritual exile.”
As Paulauskienė acknowledges, Goldie Stone’s idealized portrayal of close, integrated Lithuanian-Jewish relationships in the late-nineteenth century does not accurately reflect the historical norm. Stone’s account of Lithuanian-Jewish solidarity is “exceptionally positive” and therefore “unique.” While Paulauskienė clearly states that Stone’s personal memoir should not be allowed to rewrite history or overturn scholarly consensus, she makes a cogent argument that My Caravan of Years “deserves a more enthusiastic acceptance and recognition by scholars in ethnic studies and ethnic literature.”
Equally compelling is the book’s fourth chapter, which resurrects a culture-studies document that merits renewed interest among literary historians. Set in the immigrant mining towns of western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s, Margaret R. Seebach’s That Man Donaleitis (sic) is “the only ethnic novel about Lithuanians written by an American whose author seeks to make a statement not about America and Americans but about Lithuania and Lithuanians.” This aspect of the work alone should spark researcher interest, but Seebach’s novel, though now difficult to find even in university libraries, has several attractive elements. In addition to its Lithuanian focus, it is a strongly realistic immigration novel, a strike novel, a novel that addresses archetypal aspects of social mobility and citizenship, and a revealing treatment of nativist and anti-Catholic prejudice in its historical context. Through Paulauskienė’s extended analysis, That Man Donaleitis emerges as a text that provides a useful lens for the study of race, class and gender in the early-twentieth century United States.
In her final chapter, Paulauskienė engages the ideological dimensions of literary canon formation, claiming that longstanding political realities in both the United States and Lithuania have unjustly marginalized leftist Lithuanian-American literature in general, and the works of Algirdas Margeris and Rojus Mizara specifically. She asserts that, “the contemporary Lithuanian nation-state does not revere the literary heritage of the socialist and communist wing of its diaspora as much as it does that of its nationalist wing.” This same tendency is visible among the majority of Lithuanian-Americans, who tend to turn a blind eye to leftist literature “on the grounds of its unacceptable ideological views.” As examples of texts that have been unjustly ignored, Paulauskienė offers Margeris’s historical novel (Šliūptarniai [Sliupas’s Servants] (1949) along with Mizara’s novels Sliakeris [Slacker] (1929) and Mortos Vilkienės Divorsas [The Divorce of Morta Vilkienė] (1935). These works not only restore “a more all-encompassing ideological panorama” to Lithuanian-American letters; they also constitute the “only branch” of Lithuanian-language literature written in America that “records the Lithuanian immigrant experience.” While Paulauskienė shares her countrymen’s indignation toward the Soviet regime that was imposed on Lithuania in the twentieth century, she nevertheless finds these leftist novels “worth studying as a constituent part of Lithuanian literature.”
Throughout her study, Paulauskienė contends that the lack of well-informed treatments of Lithuania in American letters is an issue that goes far beyond Jonathan Franzen’s recent willful distortion in The Corrections. Rather, it is the result of complex historical factors that have marginalized all but a few Lithuanian-American voices.
Paulauskienė’s interesting research could have several forms of impact on her field. First, it reminds American literary researchers to continue to explore the cultural hybridity of Litvak-American literature and strive toward insights about the Lithuanianness of Lithuanian Jews. Second, it suggests that book publishers at academic and culture-studies presses should take a close look at Margaret Seebach’s That Man Donaleitis, a neglected novel that appears worthy of reprinting, perhaps with a detailed introduction in an edition suitable for university course syllabi. Finally, it urges Lithuanian and American scholars to assess and discuss their priorities in relation to Lithuanian-American leftist literature, which offers novels worthy of inclusion in the canon as long as texts are evaluated not by their politics but by the cultural work they do. Each of these goals is a solid rationale for a work of revisionist scholarship; appearing together in Lost and Found, they make for an unusually ambitious and potentially important book.
* Among the “signs of adjustment” to Cahan’s cultural identification among literary scholars, Paulauskienė notes recent works by David H. Hirsch, “Secularism and Yiddishkeit in Abraham Cahan’s ‘The Imported Bridegroom’ and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘The Little Shoemakers,’” and Ruth R. Wisse, “Singer’s Paradoxical Progress” in Critical Essays on Isaac Bashevis Singer (New York: G.K. Hall, 1996). See also my article, “Abraham Cahan’s Vilna and the Roots of ‘Litvak’ Realism.” Lituanus 52:4 (Winter 2006): 46-69.